December 1, 2021

Revitalization of Mike Tyson’s Catskills gym continues region’s boxing legacy

Table of Contents Cus D’Amato carries on a Catskills traditionFrom ‘Cinderella Man’ to Sonny Liston…

Decades before an aging boxing trainer named Cus D’Amato relocated from New York City to Catskill and launched the career of Mike Tyson, professional prizefighters headed to the Catskills region to hone their skills, tone their bodies and tout their upcoming bouts.

They set up summertime training camps at hotels filled with vacationers from New York City, then the epicenter of boxing and travel. Reporters from the city’s major media outlets could make the two-hour drive upstate and be back in their newsrooms later in the day to write their stories.

Everyone benefited: the fighters got in shape, the press got its stories, the resort guests got a show while watching some of the sport’s greatest fighters hold open sparring sessions.

“The history of the Catskills is so intertwined with boxing,” said Mike Silver, author of numerous magazine articles and three books on prizefighting, including his latest, “The Night the Referee Hit Back: Memorable Moments from the World of Boxing.”

The major resorts that hosted the big-name pugilists — Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, the Concord — are long gone, as are most of the hundreds of smaller hotels that made the Catskills a popular tourist destination. But starting in the 1930s and lingering into the 1990s, boxing’s biggest stars trained there.

Local kids get air lifted on the muscles of world heavyweight boxing champ Rocky Marciano at Grossinger’s Catskills Resort and Hotel in Sullivan County on July 31, 1953. Professional fighters often took breaks from training in the Catskills to interact with children and fans who lived in the area.

Bettmann via Getty Images

James Braddock. Sugar Ray Robinson. Rocky Marciano. Ezzard Charles. Sonny Liston. Ken Norton. Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier. Larry Holmes. Riddick Bowe. Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini.

They came for the fresh air, isolation from big-city distractions and miles of quiet country lanes conducive for running. The free pre-fight publicity from media coverage was a bonus.

“Going to train at a hotel like Grossinger’s was a win-win situation for everybody,” said Silver, a Queens-based boxing historian who has been writing about the sport for 50 years. “It brought publicity to the hotel. And trainers liked the country because it was easier to keep track of the fighters, especially if it was miles from the nearest city and especially if entrance to the camp was restricted. It was tough to sneak in a showgirl.”

Cus D’Amato carries on a Catskills tradition

The Bronx-born D’Amato already had nearly a half-century of blood, sweat and toil invested in the sport when in 1970 he permanently relocated his gym from New York City to the village of Catskill, 30 miles south of Albany.

By then he had already trained two fighters to world championships — heavyweight Floyd Patterson and light heavyweight José Torres — and by the end of the decade he was training a troubled 13-year-old who would become the third: Mike Tyson, a resident of Mohawk Valley juvenile detention center by way of Brooklyn’s meanest streets.

Darren Ruff, then 11, was one of the local youths training at D’Amato’s gym when Tyson, the new kid with the grown man’s physique, first showed up.

“I was like, ‘He’s not 13!” said Ruff, who boxed as an amateur in the mid-1980s, ranking as high as ninth nationally as a junior welterweight.

Ruff is among a core group of volunteers assisting Kyle Lyles in his effort to revitalize the space where Tyson trained en route to becoming the youngest world heavyweight champion, in November 1986, at 20 years old. Tyson’s time training under D’Amato in the Catskills was a big part of this year’s documentary “Mike Tyson: The Knockout.”

Ruff and Lyles grew up together in Catskill and both went on to careers with the New York State Police. Now retired, the two friends share a dream of seeing D’Amato’s legacy kept alive through youth programs and training sessions for amateurs, pros or anyone just looking to get into shape.

Visual essay

Muhammad Ali at the Concord Hotel in Catskill Mountains, Sept. 20, 1976.

Muhammad Ali at the Concord Hotel in Catskill Mountains, Sept. 20, 1976.

Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

From Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson: Boxing’s rich history in the Catskills


There’s an ancillary objective: help their hometown by attracting tourists to the place where Tyson began his career.

“Our goal is to get this gym rockin’ and rollin’ again,” said Lyles, director of Cus D’Amato KO Boxing Gym, Inc., the nonprofit organization operating the gym, still located on the top floor of the three-story building that houses the village’s police department and government offices on Main Street. Framed 1980s newspaper clippings chronicling Tyson’s rise to fame and D’Amato’s role cover an entire wall.

It’s that storied connection that brings aspiring professional boxer Deonte Butler, of Ravena, to the gym six evenings a week for two-hour training sessions with Christian Jason, a New York City transplant whose relatives knew D’Amato, who died at 77 in November 1985, a year before Tyson became champion.

The Tyson story “is known all over the world,” said Butler, 21. “If Tyson could be great, then maybe I can be great, too.”

“We’ve got a good foundation here,” Lyles said while Butler and two other young men went through their workouts amid the heavy bags and other new equipment installed near the same boxing ring Tyson sparred in.

From ‘Cinderella Man’ to Sonny Liston

Ezzard Charles takes a time out from training for his forthcoming heavyweight bout with champion Rocky Marciano to play with his small fans at Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club in Thompson on May 20, 1954.

Ezzard Charles takes a time out from training for his forthcoming heavyweight bout with champion Rocky Marciano to play with his small fans at Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club in Thompson on May 20, 1954.

Bettmann via Getty Images

There’s certainly plenty of boxing history in the region on which to build, aside from the D’Amato-Tyson connection. The distinction of being the first boxer to train in the Catskills likely belongs to a journeyman fighter named Kid Wilson, who trained in 1900 at a local hotel outside Woodridge, according to John Conway, historian for Sullivan County, once home to the most Catskills resorts.

By the 1930s it was becoming routine for top-ranked professional fighters to head to rural places like the Catskills to prep for their championship bouts. That decade launched what Silver calls the “heyday of boxing in the Catskills.”

Muhammad Ali at his training camp at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake in the Catskills on Sept. 20, 1976, ahead of his highly anticipated third bout with Ken Norton.

Muhammad Ali at his training camp at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake in the Catskills on Sept. 20, 1976, ahead of his highly anticipated third bout with Ken Norton.

Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix/Getty Image

Braddock trained in 1935 at the Hotel Evans in Loch Sheldrake, rejuvenating his body and sparking his victory over Max Baer for the heavyweight championship, a story depicted in the 2005 Ron Howard film “Cinderella Man” starring Russell Crowe as Braddock. The real-life boxer later bought a house in Sullivan County.

“Braddock’s transformation was amazing,” Conway said. “Without the Evans, without the Catskills, there probably wouldn’t be a Jimmy Braddock as we know him.”

Ken Norton trained at Grossinger's in the summer of 1976 ahead of his third fight with Muhammad Ali, who was also training nearby at the Concord Hotel. Ali won the Sept. 28, 1976 bout by unanimous decision to retain the heavyweight title - a controversial ruling. Ali later said he thought Norton beat him.

Ken Norton trained at Grossinger’s in the summer of 1976 ahead of his third fight with Muhammad Ali, who was also training nearby at the Concord Hotel. Ali won the Sept. 28, 1976 bout by unanimous decision to retain the heavyweight title — a controversial ruling. Ali later said he thought Norton beat him.

Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Barney Ross, a champion in three weight divisions in the 1930s, was based at Grossinger’s, where he became a popular figure despite initial resistance from Malka Grossinger, the resort’s Jewish matriarch.

In his 1957 autobiography, “No Man Stands Alone: The True Story of Barney Ross,” the son of an immigrant Jewish rabbi from Eastern Europe told how he overcame her distain for boxing in general and fighters in particular by speaking Yiddish with “Mom” Grossinger and singing Hebrew songs alongside her during sabbath services at the family’s synagogue.

The 1950s saw Rocky Marciano, considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight fighter ever (49-0 record, 43 knockouts), make Grossinger’s his adopted home, training for several bouts at a gym set up at the resort’s airfield. Ezzard Charles trained just a few miles away at Kutsher’s for his two 1954 heavyweight fights with Marciano.

Heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston often trained at the Pines Hotel in South Fallsburg, Sullivan County. He's shown here in 1962.

Heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston often trained at the Pines Hotel in South Fallsburg, Sullivan County. He’s shown here in 1962.

William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

Sonny Liston trained at the Pines Hotel in South Fallsburg before defending his heavyweight title against a charismatic young fighter from Louisville, Kentucky, named Cassius Clay (The then-22-year-old Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, defeated Liston in February 1964 in Miami Beach in one of pro boxing’s greatest upsets).

Conway grew up in Monticello, where he encountered many famous fighters during his youth. Liston, he said, was “an incredibly gracious guy around young folks” despite having as fearsome a reputation outside the ring as he did inside it.

It wasn’t uncommon for Liston to enliven his workouts by hoisting a kid on his shoulders and keep running, much to the delight of other children looking on, Conway said.

Welterweight professional boxer Vince Martinez sits with fans on May 10, 1958 at Grossinger's in Liberty, New York. 

Welterweight professional boxer Vince Martinez sits with fans on May 10, 1958 at Grossinger’s in Liberty, New York. 

Stanley Weston/Getty Images

Fighters still came to the Catskills to train throughout the 1960s, but the summertime crowds that filled the resorts for decades were starting to spend their vacation dollars elsewhere, lured by cheaper airfares to more exotic destinations. By the time D’Amato relocated upstate in 1970, the glory days of the Catskills as a vacation destination were over.

Bowe, the 1992 world heavyweight champ, inadvertently summed up the region’s economic downturn when he told a WFAN interviewer that he liked the isolation in the upstate community because “there’s nothing to do here.”

Conway, a former radio reporter, called Bowe’s attempt at praising the Catskills “one of the most ironic compliments anyone could ever pay the area.”

The country life, even if temporary, wasn’t a good fit for every boxer back in the day. According to Silver, Rocky Graziano, a middleweight champ in the late 1940s who grew up on the gritty streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, didn’t last very long in such a bucolic setting.

“All this fresh air,” Graziano said before fleeing back to his New York City gym, “could kill a guy.”

More Hudson Valley History



https://www.timesunion.com/hudsonvalley/culture/article/Mike-Tyson-Catskills-gym-16577423.php